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    Congressional Delegation Out of High-Tech Loop

    BY Marilyn Geewax
    09/24/2000
    by Marilyn Geewax on 9/24/00.

    As high-tech companies mushroom, Georgia's old economy --- largely built on peanuts, poultry and pulpwood --- is being transformed.

    The new foundation rests on computer bits, bytes and biotech. Though only about 4 percent of Georgians are farmers today, about 7 percent are high-tech workers, such as computer engineers and programmers. In metro Atlanta alone, roughly 10,000 tech companies employ about 220,000 people.

    But although the tech sector is driving up the state's population and wealth, Georgia's 13-member delegation to Congress remains outside the inner circles of tech political power. Many of Georgia's business executives and lobbyists grumble about their lawmakers' lackluster leadership on tech issues.

    Politicians from a handful of other states, especially Virginia and California, have grabbed center stage on cyber-legislation. And they are making sure any new laws will benefit the companies in their states.

    "It certainly is helpful (to states) to have champions in Congress who understand the technology revolution," said Phil Bond, senior vice president of the Information Technology Industry Council, a Washington-based trade group.

    States with strong tech leadership are able to reinforce their reputations as good places to do business, he said. "It has tended to benefit districts if their leaders stand out," he said. "It puts those districts on the 'hot' lists of tech centers."

    Bond said metro Atlanta already is a tech magnet, but "that momentum could be helped by having a member (of Congress) plugged in" to the process of shaping laws for the so-called New Economy.

    Tech companies have a long list of issues for legislators to address, including expanding global trade, increasing the number of highly skilled foreigners allowed into this country, extending a moratorium on new Internet taxes, defining privacy rights on the Internet, increasing spending on scientific research and development, and boosting funds for education.

    The high-tech breeding grounds, especially those in California and Virginia, have generated a number of "go-to" lawmakers --- the people to whom tech lobbyists go when they want action.

    Those legislators are widely recognized by industry. For example, the Business Software Alliance, a trade group, confers its Cyber Champion Award on those who work to "ensure the continued growth and vitality of the high- tech industry."

    The most recent award went to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for his efforts to liberalize export control rules on encryption technology and to protect U.S. copyrights. Past recipients include several Southerners, such as Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Howard Coble (R-N.C.) and Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

    No Georgians has ever won.

    Several tech-oriented publications produce lists of prominent leaders in Congress. Those who routinely get recognized include Goodlatte and Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.), Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), and David Dreier (R-Calif.). Among senators, the lists typically include Leahy, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

    But Georgia names never appear.

    The Congressional Internet Caucus, whose members regularly meet with leaders from tech companies, includes 166 members. But only two Georgians, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Gainesville) and Johnny Isakson (R-Marietta), are members.

    Cynthia McKinney, (D-Decatur), is viewed by many as antagonistic toward tech interests, even though her district includes many high-tech companies in northern DeKalb County and Gwinnett County.

    They note, for example, that she was the only Georgian to oppose the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (E-SIGN) Act, which legalized the use of electronic signatures to complete many online transactions. That popular bill passed the House 356-66 and was signed into law this summer by President Clinton.

    Sean Nichols, a spokesman for McKinney, said the congresswoman focuses on getting tech-related government grants for her district, such as a NASA program to help students learn about space through the Fernbank Science Center. He offered no reasons for her opposition to the E-SIGN Act.

    Ironically, just two years ago, Georgia appeared likely to provide legislative direction of the Information Age because of one man: U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, the Republican from Cobb County.

    As speaker of the House, Gingrich had immense power, and was excited about new technologies. But just as tech-oriented bills were beginning to move in Congress, he resigned following the November elections in 1998.

    The loss of Gingrich also hurt the standing of Republican Rep. John Linder, who does get some recognition for his work on tech issues. Linder co- sponsored legislation to allow the export of software and hardware after a 15- day review.

    The recent death of Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell was another blow.

    "The untimely death of Senator Coverdell was a setback," Bond said. "He had just gotten the green light (from the Republican Party) to start to focus on technology. To have a bulldog like Coverdell roll up his sleeves would have been great."

    But his appointed replacement, Democrat Zell Miller, said that if he wins the November election to fill the four years remaining in Coverdell's term, he will bring "high energy level" to tech issues.

    "I don't know of any new legislator who has ever come to the Senate with a longer, stronger record than I have in high tech," Miller said, noting as governor he pushed for creation of the Georgia Research Alliance to bring together public and private resources to promote tech job growth.

    But whether MIller or Republican opponent Mack Mattingly wins the election this November, Georgia's newest senator, as well as other members of the state's delegation, soon will be paying more attention to tech issues, predicts James C. Miller III, a Georgia native who lives in Virginia and works for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a pro-business policy group.

    "There is a minimum threshold of concentrated (tech) activity where the players begin to take it all seriously," said Miller, and Georgia isn't quite there yet.

    "Information technology --- that's where the future is," said Miller, who held several high-level positions in the Reagan administration. "I would think any member of Congress worth his or her salt would be pushing at that."